Q&A: Employees’ emotions are ‘spilling over’

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Edward Hirt

Companies should find ways to remove the stigma employees feel when they seek help for stress or mental health, said Edward Hirt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University.

In a Q&A with IBJ, Hirt, who specializes in social psychology and group behavior, said that means making programs easily accessible and understanding the stress that so many are feeling, especially as the workplace changes again—with employees going back into the office or adapting to more permanent stay-at-home or hybrid situations.

Here’s an edited version of what he told IBJ.

How do you think, overall, the pandemic has affected people’s emotional health?

I think for many of us, the biggest adjustment was having to deal with a level of uncertainty that we’re not used to. As things were emerging with the pandemic, we were getting a lot of mixed messages about how serious it is, how spreadable it is, who it affects more, who it affects not as much. There was just a lot of uncertainty about what we should do about it, how long this was going to last, how this was going to affect our lives looking forward. … And once things shut down, “How long is this for?” “Am I going to be unemployed?”

Living in uncertainty is really, really, really challenging. When you have a window time, when you can at least think, “Oh, I’m only going to have to do this for this long,” we can adjust a lot easier. But this was an indefinite time frame. … That just wears on people to such a degree that I think we’re seeing so many different kinds of responses as things have evolved through the pandemic. There are some interesting sides to all of us as we come through this experience, because it really was uncharted territory for most of us.

It seems most people have experienced very different emotions in different parts of the pandemic. Stress or emotions have evolved. How do you think it has changed for people?

As things have evolved, you get into different stages of acceptance, of denial, anger, all those kinds of things. It’s almost like what people have always said about accepting death and dying. … Many of us experienced many of those different kinds of things as this went on. Sometimes, people were really, really angry. Sometimes, people were really just despondent—because it was just like, “I’m never going to get back to normal. And I just don’t want to live like this.”

Some people embraced it as an opportunity to help other people. They thought about the greater good. Many of us realized that there are some people hit way worse than us in the pandemic—people who were unemployed, or people who were homeless, or people that just had many more situations. For many of us, it was that idea of getting out of my own pain, my own discomfort, my own inconveniences and think broader about the world or my community or individual people around me and what I can do to sort of make that better.

And the other thing is that we have new habits start. You had to wear masks. You had to maintain this kind of distance. And then you get used to it. So it can be comforting [to continue those habits]. Or, for others, it’s like, “God, I can take this thing off now. I just want to chuck it as quickly as possible.”

Those reactions are a kind of weird, mental gymnastics that we do to justify what we want to do, how we’re going to react in situations. And I think it created division in people, obviously, because of that kind of different reactions to a lot of the things we were told to do.

A lot of people are now coming back to their offices. What kind of challenges does coming back to work pose for workers’ stress or mental health?

Some people really had a tough adjustment to working at home. Some people thought, “Wow, this is a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. There are benefits to this, etc.” Other people were like, “This is really hard. This is the place where I get away from work, and now to make that a work center has now made that a more stressful environment.” There’s isolation, in the sense of not feeling like you’re having the contact with people that you would at the workplace.

So it’s been interesting to see people’s reactions. Some people can’t wait to get back to work, right? There are other people who like working from home or the flexibility of it, who don’t want to commute, don’t want the hassle (of going to work).

I think that’s going to be the real challenge in workplaces—to find that in-between, the balance of how flexible we can be, or, can we make demands of people that it has to be this way or everybody has to do it that way. Now that people have seen alternative ways of being able to do many aspects of their work, we have to decide, how flexible do we make it? And are there going to be resentments about that? … It could be a mess. I think it’s going to be hard to find something that everybody’s going to be happy with.

As you said, some people are eager to get back to work, but I definitely feel that there’s some anxiety about being in an office again. Is that surprising at all, given the time some workers have spent at home?

There are people who still feel the uncertainty of it all and are concerned about the idea that there could be future outbreaks and about what their susceptibilities are and whether other people really are taking the right precautions. There are people who are very anxious about trying to go back to in-person things. Do they want to even go into the stores? Do they want to even go to large public gatherings?

So this is going to be really challenging.

What could employers do to help workers as they come back to cope with whatever stressors they have?

We’re always worried that people are very reluctant to admit things that might lead others to think less of them. So, there’s a stigma that can be associated with any kind of mental illness or just succumbing to stress. I think, in many professions, it’s something people have been very reluctant to open up about.

And the pandemic may have exacerbated that in people. A lot of people are really showing signs of these things being magnified. One of the things that we hopefully have learned during this is the idea that we have to be more open about this. We have to create an environment where people can safely talk about this, can admit things.

Many employers have programs in place to make sure people’s concerns are heard and seen as valid. Some workplaces have been more progressive about that, others probably less so. Going forward, we’re really going to have to be sensitive to making sure we have programs so that people can communicate their concerns.

One of the things that’s really scary to me is that—with people’s emotions so high—all of a sudden, we have this explosion of workplace mass shootings and stuff like that. I don’t think that’s anything we should just see as not relevant to this.

People have a lot of stuff built up and I think things are spilling over. That manifests in lots of different ways. This is a problem we have to take seriously and just have things in place to be able to deal with, because I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

Is there anything workers can do to try to manage their own anxieties? What would you suggest?

Just be attentive to yourself in terms of your own needs. Being aware of the effects that things are having on you is going to be really important. So for many of us, if we have a social network, we have to really be able to rely upon it.

And you have to utilize the mechanisms that are in place for people to communicate [about their needs] … because I think it’s undeniable that the stress of this kind of stuff has taken its toll on people and has had a cumulative effect over the months and months that we’ve had to deal with it.•

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